Busted! 7 Myths About High Dynamic Range Photography


HDR, or "High Dynamic Range" photography gets a lot of hate on the internet, particularly from other photographers. So why does "HDR" stir up so many love/hate relationships? In this article, we're going to take a look at the myths and misconceptions about HDR, and see what you can do to make your HDR photos better.

There's a lot of hate because HDR photos don't look realistic. When you open upPhotomatix and crank every slider to the extreme the results are usually less than subtle. But good HDR isn't about "more". It's about finding that proper balance between "out of camera" and "way too much", which requires some forethought and patience.
If you make a Google image search "HDR", you'll see a lot of over-saturated, super constrasty photos, washed out flat looking photos, and ones with black clouds, weird halos, and sharpening of subjects that shouldn't be sharpened. There is no "right" or "wrong" way to do HDR, but there are certainly things that look better and get less cringes from your fellow photographers.

HDR sunset stream and mountrains
Photo used with permission from Aman Anuraj

This photo blends exposures in different parts of the composition to create a very realistic and beautiful sunset scene. When I look at this photo, I imagine that this is exactly what I would see were I standing there looking at it with my own two eyes. Not every HDR photo is an overworked mess.
Some people believe that it's unethical or manipulates the truth to use Photoshop or create HDR images. If you are a photojournalist, then I agree. But if you are shooting landscapes, architecture, or other common HDR scenes, then it's not about creating "truth". It's about creating "art". And that art doesn't have to conform with what technically happened.
Even back in the film days, photographers created HDR photos. High dynamic range doesn't have to create the garish images that you might first think of, but rather it is any photo in which you are extending the luminance values beyond what the camera intially captured. The great Ansel Adam's used the Zone System to extend the range of his photos. He would mark up test prints of his negatives with "dodge here", "burn here", all in an attempt to increase the range of detail of the initial print. To some extent, that's the exact same thing many of us use HDR for today. The difference is that film had a lot more exposure latitude than a digital sensor, so they could push and pull the exposures in the dark room. We don't have that same flexibility unless we blend multiple exposures digitally. 
There are some subjects that naturally lend themselves to HDR, and others that don't. If you are shooting anything that has texture and depth (especially metal), then HDR can look great. This is popular with landscapes and architecture. However, you can't just slap HDR on anything and make it look better.

HDR dog
Photo by Flickr User "knowprose" under Creative Commons

If you're working with people, animals, or generally anything that is supposed to be soft and cuddly, then HDR is going to have the opposite effect. Not only was this HDR the type people generally point to when they are complaining about it, but I probably wouldn't use this process on my pets anyway.
The sheer number of search results prove that isn't true. This common myth among photographers, perpetuated by numerous Tumblr and Wordpress blogs dedicated to "HDR sucks". Many times, a photo will use the HDR process in a very slight or understated manner, and non-photographers won't even know what to call it. All they know is that they love it. If my clients love it, and I get paid for it, I'm absolutely sure I'm going to keep doing it. It's only photographers that even know the word HDR, much less hate on it.

HDR wedding photograph
Photo by NOM Creative

I just said a few lines up that HDR doesn't work on portraits. This photo used a base photo that was HDR to accent the building behind them, then a clean copy of the couple was overlayed on top.
To create HDR photos, you have to take multiple exposures and blend them. Using a tripod is definitely a best practice. If you are a photographing a landscape, photograph at night, or simply have the patience to set up a tripod, then that is certainly the best way to get good images. However, this doesn't mean you can't do it without one.

HDR church
Photo by NOM Creative

I have a confession. I never use a tripod. I didn't even own one before I started writing for Tuts+ and needed a tripod for my video tutorials. Yet I still made HDR photos. If you move, then your photos won't line up. But if you use a fast shutter speed and motor drive (generally at the cost of higher ISO), then you can bracket your exposures and get great HDR photos hand-held. I do this for all of my travel photography either when I don't want to bring a tripod or I'm not allowed one.
Fact: the presets in your software are probably terrible. Photomatix is the most commonly used stand-alone HDR software, and it does a decent job. The most available HDR software is Photoshop itself. Photoshop actually does a great job of blending exposures, even though the presets are less than perfect.
Here are my three original exposures of the Pantheon:

Original images of Pantheon

And the resulting Photoshop HDR image:

Photoshop HDR image of Pantheon
The heinously bad HDR pumped out by Photoshop using one of the presets. 

Complete with black clouds, ghosting from mis-alignment (both hand-held and high winds with fast moving clouds), weird artifacts, and strong halos. Without tweaking any settings, this is a pretty disappointing photo if I were to stop here. Instead of tweaking settings on this photo, since I actually like how the building looks, I blended it back in to the original.

Photo by NOM Creative

For the final image, I blended the original dark exposure back in for the clouds, on top of the HDR version for the building. Sometimes you'll need to tweak your HDR settings, but more often than not, you'll have to blend it back in to the original photo.
Most of the cringe-worthy HDRs on the web took about 10 seconds of work after Photomatix, Nik, or Photoshop spit out a file. Just enough time to click "save". Let's run through a real world example: a sunrise HDR photograph on Mount Haleakala in Maui. I took a lot of exposures to create a high resolution panoramic, so let's look at a small portion of it:

Sunrise Mt Haleakala
One of the middle exposures after being stitched together. 

Because the scene is backlit, you don't have any detail in the highlights or shadows, leaving you with only silhouettes. As is, this is a low dynamic range photo, probably akin to what your phone might see, even though this was shot with a Canon 5D Mark III. So no matter how you choose to do it, you have to extend the dynamic range. Enter HDR.

Initial HDR processed image

Ta-da! We're done right? Just kidding, not even close. Many hours were spent on this image after the HDR conversion. It's a very high resolution image, intended for a very large print, so meticulous detail was required. HDR did a lot of the heavy lifting, but there is a lot of subtle changes required to make a good image a great image.

Completed HDR processed image

After many curves adjustments, masking, and a little bit of exposure blending from the original exposures, here is a section from the final result. If you would like to see the full photo in it's high-res glory, you can check it out on gigapan.
High Dynamic Range isn't just a singular process. Yes, there are HDR programs. But you are also extending the dynamic range of your photos by pushing up shadow detail and bringing down highlight detail through luminosity masking, exposure blending, curves, levels, or pumping sliders in camera raw. HDR is a process, not a genre. It's another tool in your bag of tricks that you can use to create art and sell images. Instead of writing off high dynamic range techniques, take photos knowing that you can use HDR as a tool when it's appropriate for the subject.


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